Swimming S.C.A.R.

As I write this, my head is still spinning with the whirlwind that is the SCAR 4-day challenge. “Let the adventure begin,” I posted on my Facebook the night before the first swim. And the adventure did not disappoint.

With ideal conditions, massive cliffs, blue waters and beauty as far as the eye could see, I was perfectly positioned to meet my goal of savoring each moment, even the ones that hurt. I knew the whole time that the experience would be over in the blink of an eye, that sometime soon I’d be where I am now: on a plane, sipping airport coffee and wishing we could start all over at the beginning and do it again.

Last night, as the sun was setting during the final day/stage, Roosevelt Lake, I watched the pinks and purples on the horizon behind me, gently stroking double arm backstroke to stretch my shoulders. Dan paddled quietly beside me. I tried to photograph the moment in my mind, the profile of the mountains, the sunset colors, the glassy water stretching on for forever behind me. This is truly the best reward, I thought. And you don’t get to take this one home, so soak it in now.

For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with SCAR, it is a four day stage race in Arizona, with distances ranging from 6.2-17 miles for each day. It was originally a training and adventure swim rather than a race per se, and I think for many of us, it still is. That being said, there is a pretty nifty prize–the famous SCAR belt buckle, which looks like this.

SCAR is also one of the best organized, well-run, fun-focused events out there. When I think about the logistics of running this thing, it’s mind boggling. The lakes are a chain of reservoirs on The Salt River, the water supply for Phoenix. Each swim started at a dam and finished at the next dam. Swimmers and kayakers must be transported by boat to the start and back to the staging areas after the finish. There are about 40 swimmers in each race. I watched the race organizers deal flexibly, cheerfully and gracefully with all kinds of logistical challenges. Many volunteers were swimmers who had completed the event before or other events like it. Everyone was encouraging, humorous, and positive to be around. On the SCAR swim Facebook page, you can see great videos of these folks in action. From crew doing back flips off the pontoon to saving each other from a diamondback rattlesnake that boarded the boat, these awesome people did it all.

Above: The rattler swims swiftly toward the pontoon boat before slithering aboard!

Being at SCAR, you really get a deep sense of what the marathon swimming community is about. I made a ton of new friends and got to know my current friends even better. There’s nothing like an epic experience to tie people together.

If you’re curious how I trained for this four day endurance adventure, check out this training blog post. and for other lake bagging we did in Arizona, prior to SCAR, check out this one here.

Saguaro Lake

Day one, Saguaro Lake, is often referred to as “the warm up”. At 9.5 miles, (8 if you go by our gps), it’s a pretty long warm up. But I can see why they call it that. I was happy with how I swam, but I didn’t find my groove mentally until the second day (or stage) of the event. I was kind of distracted, more frantic and not really relaxed like I enjoy being on a longer swim. I texted a friend, SCAR veteran Jamie Proffit, that night that I thought maybe I tried to hard. Tried too hard? Is that a thing?

Canyon Lake

The next day was Canyon Lake and rather than swim frantically, I set a goal to appreciate and value each moment of the swim and to not ask for things to be different than they are. By that, I mean being in the present moment even if the moment is uncomfortable. Your arm hurts? Well ok, that’s what’s happening now. You’re feeling frustrated? Ok, that’s what’s happening right now. Someone just passed you? Ok, fine that’s just what’s going on. It’s different than apathy. It’s acceptance, which allowed me to work with whatever the current conditions were. As I focused on allowing things that were not under my control, I noticed my appreciation for other things would come into sharper focus. Ideal conditions, scenery, Dan’s skillful paddling strokes and cool cowboy hat were things that took center stage in my mind. Other swimmers became companions rather than competitors. I wasn’t fighting my experience at all and found my strokes getting longer, the technique I have practiced coming through smoothly. I absolutely loved this approach. Oddly, I had the best time, even during those moments that were really hard.

Another aspect I enjoyed was how Dan and I were able to dial in our teamwork. We added some hand signals that helped allow him to guide us through the most efficient path through the steep, curving canyon. I later learned that some other swimmers swam much further than I did (according to their gps devices), which highlights the importance of the crew-swimmer-team aspect of marathon swimming. My successes became our successes because I wouldn’t have done nearly as well without him. Here’s me and Dan, photo credit to Patty Hermann!

Apache Lake

The third day is “the big one”, Apache Lake, billed as a 17 miler, but perhaps closer to 14 if you’re going by my gps watch. Distances on these things vary, depending on what route you take. The route depends on the conditions. For instance, if there is a headwind, it’s to your advantage to stay close to the more protected cliffs on the north side of the lake. You may swim further, but you would still be faster, due to calmer water. We actually had a tailwind for the first part of the race, so Dan set a course straight down the middle of the lake. The wind launched my body forward with every stroke. The motion of swimming fast sent me into a euphoric state. Good song after good song played in my head and I was on a roll. My heart rate was up and I was surging ahead, my muscles feeling strong as they worked together with the wind to travel on down the length of the massive lake. I told myself to slow down. I still had an estimated four hours to swim. I was less than one third done. But I found that I couldn’t. The adrenaline the wind was stirring up was just too much. My coach, Rich Suhs, had reminded me via text the night before to keep my head down and hips up. “Float like a boat”, he said. I kept thinking about that, which only added to the speed and fueled the euphoria.

The big surge went on for a couple hours, somehow. Then the wind calmed and the water became glassy. It was truly beautiful, the landscape reflecting off the lake in the distance. I found myself cruising at a more sobered, respectably grounded pace. I discovered that the scenery was much easier to view there, at Apache, because it was further away. I could look across the water on a breath, my head turned to the side, and see the entire height of the cliffs on the walls of the lake. At Canyon and Saguaro (first two days), I had trouble seeing much, since the cliffs were so close. I’d look up on a breath and just see rock directly beside me. I decided Apache was my favorite so far.

Then came the hard part. Out of nowhere, my left hip sort of gave out. I’m not sure how to describe the problem, but I had to kick with one leg for a little while. The left leg dragged behind me, useless. I tried some different positions, yelling to Dan to switch the kayak to my left side. I found that breathing exclusively to my left began to relieve the pressure and before long I was able to use the leg again. Eventually, after a half hour, hour? I was able to breath to my right side again without any hip trouble. Unfortunately, by then the damage was done. Breathing exclusively to my left had placed a disproportionate amount of burden on my right arm. Every few strokes brought a sudden, very sharp pain to the area near my lats and shoulder blade. “F@*$!!!” I yelled, involuntarily into the air during a breath. (Only what I yelled didn’t have the @ or the *.) Dan looked at me in alarm. I later learned he thought I was mad at him. I’m ok! I shouted on the next breath. I didn’t want to stop because I didn’t know what would happen if I did. I closed my fist on my right arm so that I could continue to stroke but without much pressure on my right arm muscles. I flipped over and did backstroke for awhile. I did breastroke, double arm backstroke. Tried freestyle again. Closed fist. Open fist. Still, every few strokes, the pain would sear me. “Oh Jess, what have you done?” I asked myself, thinking I must be now paying the price for my euphoric surge. Would I be able to finish? I looked behind me and didn’t see anyone at all. “There’s no one around,” I said to Dan. “How are you doing,?” he asked while I drank from my hydroflask. Thumbs sideways, I said, with my thumb. It was the first thumbs sideways I’ve ever given him. I always give him thumbs up, even during cold swims when I am really uncomfortable. I knew I had to “allow” this experience as well. It was just what was happening, like everything else. I started swimming again, taking very, very gentle strokes with my right arm. I was absolutely babying it and taking my time. I can’t say for how long I did this, but eventually the muscle must have sorted itself out because I was gradually able to increase the pressure on it without having any pain. Then everything was back to normal again. Normal muscle pain in my arms, normal muscle pain in my legs. For awhile I just admired more scenery.

The wind picked up again, only this time it was a headwind. It got choppy, but Dan took us toward a point and once there, we received some protection from the wind. Oddly, the headwind forced my stroke to change just enough that I must’ve been using slightly different muscles, because things hurt less, even though progress was slower. I picked my head up and was shocked to see we appeared to be heading right into a random cove with no outlet. What are we doing? Where are we going? I shouted at Dan, stopping and frantically looking around. “To that point over there!” He yelled back. “Go!”

I could just barely make out the faint outline of a point, camouflaged to look like just a cove. Dan told me later that he could hardly see it either, but had seen boats enter there, far in the distance. I again found myself overwhelmed with gratitude for his presence and skill. It turned out that this was the point right before the final push to the dam! After rounding the point, Dan spotted the orange buoys in the distance and gave me a thumbs up. I felt another surge coming on. He gave me another thumbs up a little later and I picked my head up to see what was ahead. Spotting the orange buoys, I got so excited that I put my stroke into full throttle and sprinted to the finish, whacking the line of orange buoys with a huge smile on my face.

Roosevelt Lake

Going into day four, I was in the lead for the overall series. I had decided before even coming to SCAR that the adventure and camaraderie was going to be the cake and the frosting of the cupcake and the competition could be there, but it would need to be the cherry on the very top. I’m proud I was able to keep that straight in my head, and having some good races was exciting and motivated me to try hard. As mentioned previously, this event was originally (and mostly still is) a training and adventure swim. People are respected and admired for many different skills, traits and experiences. I’m not just saying that because it sounds good. It really is the case. Someone with a lot of experience in marathon swimming (like a lot of channel crossings or otherwise hard swims) is highly respected, regardless of their speed. However, when it comes to speed, one aspect I appreciate about marathon swimming is that women are often competing on the same level as men. For instance, the winner of the Apache and Roosevelt swims was Catherine Breed, a woman from California, training for a North Channel crossing. I was second and many other women did very well on those lakes. Jamie Ann Phillips, a woman from Tennessee, won SCAR overall (men’s and women’s combined) for the four lakes last year and I won the overall this year. In some, smaller races, like END-WET, men and women are not even scored in separate categories. At SCAR, there are two belt buckles awarded for the speediest man and woman, a practice I fully support because, well, the belt buckles are awesome–why not give out two of them. But it’s cool that a female overall winner is not only possible but happening more often.

All of that being said, at the start of the final swim, I was still committed to my goal of savoring the experience, maybe especially so because it was the last swim. Roosevelt Lake is the night swim, so we adorned our kayaks, suits and goggles with lights and glow sticks. Our wave (heat) started at around 4:45 or so, with sunset at 7:05. I thought maybe the swim (6.2 miles) would take me three hours, because that’s about how long it took other people in some other years and there was a substantial (but not terrible) headwind. After rounding an island, we entered the main part of the lake. The choppy water tossed my arms around, ruining my technique. I found myself thankful for all the kicking I do at practice because it was easier to rely on my steady kick in the rough water than on my arms. I slowed my turnover down and found a steady catch-up stroke style rhythm and actually enjoyed the change in environment from the glassy conditions we had been blessed with in the days prior.

As the sun was setting, the lake settled into total calm again. I switched to backstroke so I could look around and watch the sunset. Looking behind me took my breath away. “Wow,” was all I could say. Dan looked behind him too. It was a beautiful site. Pinks, purples, yellow, orange and red painted the sky, while the sparkling lights of other kayaks and swimmers surrounded us. All moments during swims are worth savoring, I’ve come to find, but this one was especially enticing.

Getting Dan to switch the kayak to my left allowed me to view more colors on the horizon with every breath to the right. Just as the sky began to darken, we arrived at the bridge, which is near the finish line of orange buoys at the dam. It’s tradition to swim backstroke under bridges, so I did that.

The dam was lit up beautifully and I made a deal with myself: 50 fast stroke cycles freestyle, then 10 easy breastroke strokes to admire the dam in front on me. Before I knew it, the swim was complete, SCAR was complete. I was on the boat, other swimmers were arriving at the finish, Kent Nicholas (race director extraordinaire) was handing me and John “Batches” Batchelder our belt buckles and the boat was heading back to the marina.

Me and Batches with our SCAR belt buckles, post-race.

I always knew it would be over too soon. Batches and I had joked about swimming back to the marina (I don’t think either of us were actually joking–we both really wanted to). I kind of wish we had, but then again it’s always good to end hungry for more.


Oregon Lake Bagging goes to Arizona

Just a quick update while we drive from Payson (North part of Tonto National Forest) to the welcome dinner for S.C.A.R. in Mesa (just South of the Tonto NF). Right now we are driving through absurdly beautiful country. I glance up between words, with mixed feelings about writing this versus staring out the window and the rugged and beautiful territory. I was born in Tucson and thought Arizona was all prickly pear and saguaro. I didn’t know it was like this.

Or like this

The first day we were here, we visited some cliff dwellings and The Grand Canyon while I took a day off from Lake Bagging.

By day two, I was in full on swimming withdrawal. I decided to take a dip in Upper Mary Lake, the water supply for Flagstaff. There was still snow on the neighboring mountains, but the shallow lake had already warmed to about 55-56F. A passer-by remarked to Dan that he hadn’t seen the water level this high since high school and he looked to be around 50 or 60 years old. Pictured here, you can see there is actually a partially submerged sign that is normally in dry land (middle of photo).

After the swim I felt loads better and decided I wouldn’t miss the chance to bag another lake on day three. The rest of day two took us into the Tonto NF and to The Mogollon Rim area, a 3,000 foot escarpment rising from the land below. We searched for rocks in dry creek beds and hill sides, finding some real treasures.

On day three we drove up The Mogollon Rim to the plateau on top. There we found Willow Springs Lake, a shallow but clear lake, surrounded by ponderosa pines and reminding me of home. At 7500 feet, the water was still chilly at around 53-54 degrees, but not as cold as I anticipated. However, the wind whipped around me as I strode into the water and a dark squall approached from the north. Dan yelled at me to stay close in case the storm brought lightning with it. I swam around for about a half hour, then got out, just as the rain started to fall.

Here is my arm, seemingly pointing toward the sky, but actually just doing backstroke.

Tomorrow is the start of the S.C.A.R. event, so it’ll be another four days of solid Lake Bagging for this swim obsessed blogger. More updates to come.

Training for S.C.A.R.

Ok folks! On Saturday it’s off to Arizona, for the start of an amazing multi-activity adventure. By “multi-activity”, I mostly just mean swimming. But there will also be a trip to the Grand Canyon and rockhounding in the Tonto National Forest, not to mention piles and piles or southwest cuisine. I’ll try to update frequently, but hopefully I’ll be too busy locating outstanding fire agates and stuffing my face with enchiladas to provide fantastically written blog posts every day. So since I’ve got nothing to do right now except obsess about what the water temperature is going to be and a mound of paperwork for my day job, I thought I’d take the time to write a little bit about the swimming part of the adventure and what it has taken to prepare for this epic feat of endurance.

First, a little information about the event. SCAR is an acronym for four lakes, which are swum over the course of four days. The lakes and distances are as follows:

  1. Saguaro Lake (9.5 miles)
  2. Canyon Lake (9 miles)
  3. Apache Lake (17 miles)
  4. Roosevelt Lake (6.2 miles) at night!

I’ll tell you a little more about the event after I’ve done it, but spoiler alert–the main challenge isn’t really the long distances so much as it is the prolonged exposure to hypothermia-inducing temperatures. Every year, even last year (the warmest on record), swimmers are pulled from the water due to hypothermia. My main deal here is that I want to finish all four lakes, have a great adventure and hopefully meet some cool people. Not getting any hypothermia would be a big bonus, but I’ll settle for survival.

Here are some notes on each of the areas my training focus areas.

Cold Water Acclimation

Naturally, my training for this event included a focus on building my body’s tolerance to colder temperatures. Last year, on my birthday (beginning of May), I took a trip with Dan and my parents to Lake Billy Chinook, one of the first in the area to warm up. I measured the temperature at 60 degrees and thought maybe I could make it for a half hour. SCAR 2018 had just finished, and I had just been starting to consider if it might be something I could do… one day.


Here I am, with my mom watching as I tentatively enter the water.

Thirty minutes later and I was fine. I actually felt great. And that was the beginning of me gradually increasing the time I could tolerate the low 60s. All summer I swam in cold lakes and got used to feeling chilly after a time. By the end of the summer, I did a long swim in Waldo Lake, 22k, 6.5 hours at 66 degrees. The air temperature was cool and it was so windy that Dan (who was kayaking) had to wear his shell to stay warm. That went fine too, and my confidence was increasing. Another memorable cold swim was the The Gates of the Mountains, in Montana. The scenery was so beautiful that I was motivated to stay in as long as I could. The air was hot and the sun warmed my back. My feet went numb and they itched that night as I tried to sleep. When our pool closed for two weeks for maintenance in September, I drove myself to Elk, Paulina and East Lakes for regular long swims in quickly cooling water.

Finally, early fall turned into late fall and the lakes cooled even more. Encouraged by more experienced cold water swimmers, I kept swimming outside. I returned to Lake Billy Chinook, swimming there weekly while the temperatures fell into the high 50s, then the low 50s and finally plummeted into the mid-40s. I wrote this entry about what it feels like to be a beginner in swimming again, since everything is different in cold water.

I even participated in the 24-hour relay in San Francisco, where I swam in 54-55 degree water for four sessions of 45 minutes per session in a 24 hour period. The last two sessions, which were at night, were a challenge for me, especially mentally, but in the end I was fine again.

The weirdest thing I did was go on long hikes in the cold air, with limited clothing. We had a snowstorm in February that prevented me from leaving my home for 5 days. I’d walk my dog in the snow, with a t-shirt and rain shell pants until I started to shiver. My skin would cool, just like in cold water, but I could last longer while hiking than in the 47 degree lake.


Above: Snow hike at Smith Rock with Dan and Maya (the dog).

Several weeks ago, despite all of this practice, as is my way: I freaked out. In my head, I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I wasn’t going to last 6-7 hours in Apache Lake, in the low 60s on day 3 of SCAR. I was going to get hypothermia and die. Or worse, I was going to get out before I was done. There was nothing I could do about it. I was so distracted one morning, that I stood on the side of the pool at practice, looking at the water but not getting in it. I was trying to do a workout with the local ironman triathlon group, coached by the infamous and knowledgeable, Matt Lieto, a professional ironman-turned-coach.

“What’s wrong?” coach Matt asked.

“Do you want to be the Sports Psychologist’s Sports Psychologist?” I asked him.

“Sure, what do you have going on?” I explained that I wasn’t sure if I could stay coherent during the longest swim and that there was a chance I’d get so confused I wouldn’t know my own name and Dan (who would be kayaking) would have to pull me out. It bothered me that I don’t have control over that aspect of the swim. “If that happens, I can’t just power through it,” I told him.

He gave me some really good advice, explaining what I did and didn’t have control over. He told some stories of ironman races of his own, where he pushed himself to his ultimate limits… and then went back again and again to encounter those same limits. I was pretty impressed and inspired. It felt really good to have someone expect me to be tough, expect me not to quit because I am cold or afraid, expect me to keep going as long as I am coherent, as long as I have control.

I went to Billy Chinook that weekend and beat my personal best in 52 degree water by 28 minutes, lasting for 1 hour and 11 minutes on Saturday. On Sunday, I decided to do it again, except the water was a full degree colder. I had several minutes of sheer panic in the middle of the lake around 45 minutes. I wanted to crawl onto the kayak, convinced that I would die if I didn’t. There was actually no reason to believe this. Nothing was happening. But for a little while the self-fulfilling panic cycle had me in its jaws. Nothing was happening, but I was convinced I was dying. I kept swimming, fighting panic with every stroke while still nothing was actually happening. Dan stopped me for a drink break. He asked my what 21 minus 5 was. I told him it was 16, took a drink, showed him that my fingers were working fine and pretended like nothing was happening, because actually nothing was. A few minutes later, everything was fine. I kept swimming.

An hour and 13 minutes after getting in the water, about 25 minutes after my panic episode, it was time to get out. I still didn’t get numb fingers, or toes or “purple back” or “claw hand”. I could still touch my thumb to my pinky, open my hand all the way up, my stroke count was still above 60 strokes/minute, and I could still tell Dan that 30 divided by 6 was 5. Unfortunately, I could still remember who the president is. I felt a lot better. Meanwhile, the lakes in Arizona were warming up. This is what the cold water acclimatization training for SCAR was like.


Distance Tolerance

Obviously, doing four marathon swims in a row requires some training in tolerating long distances. I had a few things going for me when I begun my training. First of all, I did END-WET last year, a 36 mile race in North Dakota, so I was already used to swimming a lot of meters per week. I didn’t really let that go down by much over the summer, so I was able to launch into SCAR training with a good starting base. Another thing I had to my advantage was that I grew up swimming a lot of yards. Even though that was 20 years ago, the body remembers. I did make a few changes to my normal schedule, however, to get ready to swim long distances 4 days in a row.

  1. I swim 6 days a week, but I made sure to put 4 days in a row that were challenging. Wednesdays were generally hard, fast “quality” days. Practices went for about an hour and a half or so. Thursdays and Fridays were 3 hour days and Saturdays were 4 to 6 hour days, depending on the week. Mondays and Tuesdays were just whatever and Sundays were lake swims or days off.
  2. I built up to the “mini-SCAR”, a term coined by my teammate, the wicked-awesome, Jamie Proffitt, one of the few to finish all four lakes at SCAR 2016 (during some of the most challenging conditions on record). I modified mini-SCAR slightly to be 3 hours Thursday, 4 hours Friday, 6 hours Saturday and a lake swim Sunday. I did it twice, and was joined on Saturday and Sunday both times by the super-cool, Portland-yeti-extraordinaire, Margot McKirdy (also doing SCAR!).
  3. As with all longer swims, it’s important to me to hit my max yardage two months or more before the event and maintain it for a sold two months. It’s my belief that it takes about that long for the body to get used to that amount of distance and habituate to it. I like to get to that early so that I can spend the few weeks before the event at a lower yardage per week.
  4. If you’re training for SCAR and want to see my distance log, let me know. It’s a lot and I don’t want to freak people out unnecessarily. Not everyone needs to go that far, but my body wants to.

Gettin’ Faster

I was pretty fast when I was a kid, so once I got to my target meterage per week, I decided to see if I might be able to get faster again. I don’t care so much for competition these days, but I like the idea of improvement. After all, I need a focus to the seemingly endless laps. I know this and that about swimming and getting faster, but I needed some help. So, I picked up the phone and called my club coach, Rich Suhs, who now lives in Alabama. Here’s the thing: Rich is actually a genius. He knows all about swimming and everything you need to be fast at it. Even more important, he figured out how to make me go fast, once upon a time, despite me being the slow kid no one wanted on their relay when he first started coaching us.

Rich is also a very tough coach and so I was a little surprised when, after I told him what I was doing, his first response was, “that’s a lot of swimming for someone your age.”

Wait. What?

I proceeded to inform him that he was supposed to tell me I wasn’t training hard enough, that I should do harder stuff and work harder and do more harder stuff to get faster. He was a little hesitant at first, noting that people’s bodies change as they get older. But after I gave him some data about my heart rates and what I noticed to be my limiting factors, he came around.

“If you’re pulling with paddles and a bull buoy, you’re just kidding yourself,” he blurted out at one point. “Do you have a bucket?” Finally. This was the coach I remembered.


A bucket. I shuddered at the thought. We used to pull 5-gallon buckets behind us when we were kids, to build upper body strength (still my limiting factor). He told me how to put a bucket set-up together and gave me a set to do with it: 12x25s hard, with 20 seconds rest. He also decided I should do more power work in general. I think of it as “low density, high intensity”. Things like 16-20x 50s best average on an interval with 20 seconds rest. That set is a killer when you have been doing nothing but a lot of high density sets (like an hour swim or 100x100s or 4×2,000). It’s been hard, but already I’m faster than 2018 Jessica.

Stroke Technique

I also worked on my stroke. Everyone should. When snow-bound, I watched this video featuring coach David Marsh and it changed my life. All stuff I knew when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore so I need to relearn everything.

Physical Therapy

I don’t have any shoulder issues, thank goodness, but I don’t want to get any either. So I work with a physical therapist regularly and do the things she tells me to do. It turns out, I am the weakest, in-shape person I know. My physical therapist tries to hide her dismay at the lack of stability in my “bird-dog” pose. My lower back has about once getting-out-of-the-pool per day policy. I can’t run. I hope by this time next year my whole body will be strong and stable. But that’s an ongoing goal.


I go to the climbing gym a couple times a week and climb there. It’s way more fun than lifting weights. You meet nice people and you get into a good zone of focus. In between climbs, I read a magazine, do physical therapy exercises or belay someone else. I love to climb outdoors also, but there’s something I really love about the aching burn of my arms after a good gym climb. I haven’t been climbing the past couple weeks, due to tapering and I just can’t wait to get back. Since my upper body strength is a limiting factor for my speed, I consider climbing a pretty essential part of my swim training.


Auto-belay wall at the Bend Rock Gym. Can’t wait to get back in there soon!! Wish me luck, SCAR is just a few days away.

Oh, the Isolation: Clearing the Mental Hurdles Part 3

I asked athletes what their biggest mental roadblocks are. This series of posts is in response to the answers I’ve received. Disclaimer: this is an athlete-to-athlete discussion of the mental side of swimming and in no way shape or form “mental health advice” ;).

One person said his biggest obstacle was, “the isolation, yes we can talk to the kayak/boat/crew every 30 mins or so but it’s hard to get to that mental state. Like right now months out from my next event, the ability to get in and swim silly distances is lacking as I can’t get in to that mental state”.

Another person said, “I struggle with the isolation. Swimming (especially crazy long distances) is like an exercise in sensory deprivation for me. I usually have earplugs in and can’t hear shit, can’t talk except during feeds, and half the time you’re looking down at blue/green/brown water.”

Yep. Sounds about right.

I imagine isolation is a factor in other endurance sports as well, but possibly not to the same degree as swimming, due to the unique nature of the sensory deprivation in our sport. Occasionally, one of my triathlon buddies will ask me how much further I’m going to swim that day. They always seem surprised when I tell them and sometimes refer to me as crazy (in a complimentary way), but comparing hours to hours, they train just as long if not longer. “But it’s just different with swimming,” someone said. Maybe they are right. It is pretty extreme to be in a pool for 5-6 hours, swimming back and forth, as opposed to on a bicycle, pounding out mile after mile through (hopefully) epic scenery. In any case, in any endurance sport, you are committing to long, long hours of training, to time away from the other important aspects of your life. Sometimes during my long Saturday swims, after my workout group has gone, after my second workout group is gone, after I’ve watched lap swimmers come and go, I look out at a mostly empty pool and feel a wave of loneliness. It usually passes as soon as I start swimming again, but there’s a certain flavor to the isolation that marathon swimming brings. Maybe that is why we value our camaraderie so much.


Pictured above: the empty pool, with Jim, the lifeguard pacing in the background. He tells me, “have a nice swim,” each day. A little connection can go a long way!

On the other hand, maybe sometimes the sensory deprivation is a plus. After all, people actually spend money to go float in a sensory deprivation pool as a means of relaxing, with a growing number of studies supporting a variety of health benefits. Could the isolation have an up side? As someone who has a job where I talk with people about intense things all day long, I can say that there are times when I truly appreciate the isolation that a swim in the pool brings. All the stuff I haven’t had a chance to think about when I’ve been focused on the present moment comes bouncing out as I swim along. I’ve done some of my best thinking about work related dilemmas while doing distance aerobic sets. Sometimes the things I think about bother me and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s probably best for me to face that sh*t and move on, rather than avoiding it by constantly being stimulated by other things.

Some days I enjoy the peaceful silence so much that I can sometimes get irritable when it’s interrupted by a random lap swimmer asking me why I have two (or three or four) water bottles, asking me what my heart rate is, how far I have gone, or how fast I am going (need to know basis, man). Yesterday, I explained to someone that it’s kind of like I a road trip, “when you don’t have to do anything”. “It’s my me time,” I told him. I realize that’s a bit ironic, since I am actually doing something (swimming), but what I really relish is not having to process much sensory or interpersonal information.

I remember when I was in high school, stressed about my low grade in geometry. My eyes teared up as I tried to make sense of a homework assignment one night. We had done 100x100s earlier at practice. “Why can’t I be back there, doing that, where all I have to do is finish the next 100?” I remember wondering, despondently. It’s still like that these days for me. But I have a feeling that if I didn’t have such an interpersonal job, or if I had less stimulation in other areas of my life, I’d probably be a lot less invested in swimming for long distances and time periods.

I don’t experience as much of the isolation when I am swimming in open water. At least I have the scenery around me and the novelty of whatever lake I am in. My boyfriend, Dan, is my kayaker. We have both said we appreciate the chance to spend time with each other without the pressure to converse. Each breath, I look at him paddling along in the kayak. He looks back at me, sometimes, and that’s about all I need to feel connected and not alone. Think of it as a comfortable silence–one in which you can fully embrace your inner-introvert and take a break from the social world.

Do I have any advice for dealing with the isolation? Maybe? For workouts, a lot of people prefer to join a group. Our scoreboard (pictured below) reminds me daily, during my kick set that I can join the masters team workouts. Or you can find a group of people who want to do the same type of workouts as you do and swim with them. It’s still somewhat isolating, because you are too busy swimming to chat, but a little company goes a long way. I have a great group of people I swim with on Thursdays and another group on  Saturdays. There are several people training for marathon swims in that group, including Jamie, our fearless leader. This past weekend, Margot, a marathon swimmer from Portland came down and we did our entire 6 hour workout together. Having her there made the time go by almost twice as fast.


Also for training, you could get one of those waterproof mp3 players. I have one, which I am currently struggling with, giving me very mixed feelings. I’d say more, but this is not a gear review, so I’ll keep it to myself. The upside to it is that it definitely helps with the sensory deprivation. I mostly listen to music I enjoyed when I was in high school in the 90s.

Maybe the best advice for dealing with the isolation of marathon swims is to practice a kind of meditation. After all, lots of people swear by the positive effects of silent retreats. To practice mindfulness while swimming, pick a part of your stroke to focus on and every time you notice your mind wandering, send it back to that part of your stroke. Every time you take a breath, think “relax” and allow the breath to come in with ease. If you can master this, it really helps increase the speed you can hold for long periods of time. You may also experience some of the benefits of mindfulness meditation people are always talking about.

Alternatively, if you are into loving-kindness meditation, you can engage in the practice of well-wishing. Pick a person and wish them well. If you want, you can say in your mind while thinking of the person, “may you always be healthy… may you always be strong physically and mentally… may you always find love… may you always find friendship… may you always have a reason to laugh” (or make up your own well-wishes). Pick a new person every 100, or 50 or whatever you want. This practice might help you feel more connected to other people, even if you are alone. You can also wish yourself well, or challenge yourself and well-wish someone you don’t particularly enjoy.

Finally, my personal favorite for dealing with isolation and boredom is going through the ol’ 99 bottles of beer on the wall, or other variations, which I made up during END-WET (click here and scroll down for the lyrics). Or you can write your own, personalized lyrics to the song “my favorite things” from The Sound of Music. Or you can sing songs you learned in girl scouts or summer camp. Don’t get me started on those (tee hee).

24 Hour Relay Part 2

When I wrote part 1, I was so overwhelmed with the experience, I just couldn’t find words. But I feel like you guys deserve to hear more about the spectacle that occurred all day and night this past Saturday in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, so here goes.

First, what is the 24 hour relay? Well, most importantly, it is not a race. No. It’s really not actually a race. You swim wherever you want and no one keeps track of how far or fast you went. From what I could tell, REALLY no one cares how fast or far you went. The main challenge is the cold water and the sleep deprivation. You even get to choose (ahead of time) how long you are comfortable swimming. I did four, 45 minute shifts, two during daylight and two at night (10:45 pm and 4:45 am). Swimmers rotate in and out on a predetermined schedule for different teams. Each team has to have at least one swimmer in the water at all times and that is the only rule. Some people had 30 or 60 minute shifts and I even heard of at least one person with a 90 minute shift.

The water temperature was said to be somewhere between 53-55 F, depending on who you asked and what thermometer they used. The cold water is the exciting part. Each turn in the water I took felt different and at times, I was nervous, not knowing what to expect from the repeated exposures and sleep deprivation.

Our team was The Yetis, a playful-yet-hard-working, swimming-obsessed, cold-water-hardy and encouraging bunch of people, who showed up before and after each person’s swim to carry their stuff inside out of the rain or help them get re-oriented when exiting the water. Here are The Yetis, post-swim, photo courtesy of Tracy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention I had some bonus support on my first two shifts. My friend Jesse came to the club on a day-use pass in order to avoid his team’s one-hour postal swim event. If you ask me, anyone who uses 90 minutes in cold, rough water to avoid 60 minutes in a placid, 80 degree pool is clearly crazy. Wait a minute, I guess I made the same choice. Uh oh. Hmmm.

Anyway, each shift starts from the historic South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club docks (shown here).

During the first shift, Cindy, a 24-hour relay experienced veteran gave me and Jesse the grand tour on our first lap. The three of us swam together, following a circular pattern shown by my watch’s gps here. This is actually our second swim, because the first swim’s gps track didn’t show up as well. We basically did the same path for both swims.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 1.11.40 PM

You can see where we briefly swam out of the cove, to take a quick peak at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. “This is the coolest thing ever!!” I shouted into the wind as we treaded water in the waves. Here’s where we were, right at the opening that separates the aquatic park cove from the rest of the bay. (Note the yellow sign, cautioning boats to “watch for swimmers”).


We made our way back toward the club, completed a second lap and headed in for a trip to the sauna. Getting out of the water, I felt great, absolutely great and didn’t shiver at all. I was so exhilarated! Afterward, sitting on the dock in my swim parka, post-sauna and toasty warm, I got a wave of euphoria. The water looked beautiful, I had great company, my parka was warm. Everything felt so cozy.

In between shifts, people passed the time eating delicious food, socializing, helping keep the club ship-shape and supporting teammates in and out of the water. Things seemed to run remarkably smoothly despite the many moving parts. I attribute this to Suzy, the race director and the other more experienced participants helping us newbies know what to do and how to help. It seemed more like some sort of surreal family reunion than an open water swim race.

The second shift was a lot like the first, except the water got a lot more choppy. I did my usual start, with some backstroking, while rain and stray drops of water landed on my face. I looked around for Jesse and decided to swim behind him, to get his draft so I could take it easy. (I’m the laziest hardworking person I know). Switching to freestyle, I rode swells up and down like an elevator at times and got slapped in the face by small waves at others. I was getting pushed around by the water so much that I kept running into Jesse’s feet. I decided to swim next to him, which meant I had to try hard. But trying hard was keeping me warmer and I found it even more exhilarating. After the first loop, I noticed an orange tint in the sky and realized the sun was starting to set. I wished we were able to see it go down over the Golden Gate Bridge, but the rain and clouds obscured it. When we neared the docks after the second loop, I consulted my watch. We were only slightly disappointed to learn that we still had a few more minutes left, due to swimming too fast for our own good! We killed time and held hypothermia at bay by swimming west for a few more minutes and then finally back to the docks.

Me in between swims, wearing my awesome yeti hat, which was handmade by Yetis themselves!


After rewarming in the sauna, I went back outside to total darkness. People were swimming in the cove with their safety buoys illuminated by bright lights placed inside and with LEDs attached to their goggles. A lone kayaker patrolled the line of buoys on the south side of the cove. “Well… looks like shit just got real”, I thought to myself. It would be my first night swim in the ocean. It would also be my first cold swim at night, but these are both the kinds of intense experiences I long for. I was not disappointed.

Tacos were served for dinner and that totally hit the spot. I’m pretty sure I sat there and ate tacos for an hour, but I might be exaggerating. Not sure. After dinner, Jesse headed home, having exhausted the day use nature of his club pass. I was sad to see him go, but there were lots of other swimmers around, navigating the shorter buoy line back and forth. I knew I’d be fine.

The first night shift started off a bit rocky, with a malfunctioning buoy light and my finicky gps watch misbehaving. I entered the water flustered and gasping as a result. A few strokes in and I felt an odd tickling in my ear. Oh no, I thought, between gasps. I forgot my ear plugs. I reminded myself I probably wouldn’t get the dreaded surfers ear in 45 minutes and kept swimming. I knew I would get colder sooner, however, with the cold water free to flow in and out of my head with every head turn to breath. After my usual first few hundred meters backstroke, I flipped over to freestyle, breathing to my left to take in the view of the city. This may have been my favorite part. I just couldn’t get enough of the view. As my skin cooled down to water temperature, my breathing grew steady and my muscles relaxed. As I settled into a nice rhythm, I looked across the water to the splendidly lit Ghirardelli square. This is pretty much the view I focused on the entire time.


The dimly lit buoys were sometimes hard to spot, but I made my way back and forth east to west, while the 45 minutes ticked by. I sometimes encountered other swimmers, but most were fairly spread out. Toward the end, I felt the coldness sink deeper into my arms somehow. Nothing really ever got numb, just chilly. I had to stop frequently to press the light button on my watch to view the elapsed time so I’d know when to get out. It grew harder and harder to press the button, as my fingers got colder, but I managed.

Finally, it was time. I had done it, my first cold, night, ocean swim!

As I rewarmed in the sauna, my teeth chattering away, I pondered my next challenge. Saturday morning when I had arrived, bright-eyed and excited, I had come up with the great idea to volunteer as a safety kayaker in the middle of the night. Some of the other yetis were doing the same thing and it sounded like fun. It sounded like fun at the time, when I was warm and full of energy. As I sat shivering in the hot sauna, I wondered if I had bit off more than I could chew. Luckily, several people had lent me paddling gear, including a waterproof shell, wool pants a neoprene cap and neoprene booties, to keep me warm and dry-ish.

Armed with a thermos of hot coffee and a walkie talkie, I paddled out into the cove, the boat alight with flashing LEDs. It was 1 am, and the water was much more calm. Looking out along the buoy line, it was mostly dark, with the occasional sparkle of a swimmer’s LED lights. I paddled back and forth on the course, watching people swimming and mostly trying to stay out of people’s way, but still be near enough to help if needed. Everyone looked strong and happy to me. Some people swam in groups, occasionally stopping to chat with one another or greet me. I took a photo of the Ghirardelli sign so I could show you guys how nice it looked. It was peaceful out there and I found myself feeling really glad I had taken the opportunity. Here’s a blurry photo from the kayak, lit by a red, LED light disk.


The shift was supposed to last 2 hours, but another kayaker joined me after an hour. I was incredibly thankful, because I really needed to go to the bathroom and had been fantasizing about all the possible ways to discretely relieve oneself while paddling a kayak and wearing someone else’s pants. I was also thankful because the wind had picked up again, causing me to feel chilled and I only had a couple more hours before I had to swim again.

After getting off of the water, I got into my sleeping bag and slept from 3-4 am, waking up shivering in my bag with 45 minutes before my next swim. I quickly got up and made a beeline for the sauna, realizing I’d needed to somehow rewarm before getting back into the water. After the sauna, I was still shivering! Feeling really quite apprehensive, I went downstairs and talked to Kristin, the yeti with the swim shift after mine. Kristin had made a smart move by getting up earlier so she could eat before her shift and pointed out that I might just be shivering from being tired and it being the middle of the night. I agreed, while chugging hot water from my hydroflask. The hot liquid really helped and on schedule, I donned my swim cap, goggles, lighted buoy and of course, ear plugs!

Fellow yetis helped me out to the water and I ran straight in, tagging Amy and Anders, the yetis with the shift before mine, as I went. This time, I really focused on relaxing my breathing and swimming smoothly, but not too hard. I swam all the way to the west end of the buoys and back. It took ten minutes, so I said I’d do it four times and then see what time it was. I didn’t stop to look at my watch much this time, since I was much more familiar with the course and how long it took. I realized that with it taking ten minutes, it must be about the same length as my course at Lake Billy Chinook. At night and in the dark and on my fourth swim, it seemed so much further.

I completed the fourth length, still feeling strong, with no numbness or problems. But only 40 minutes had passed. With a sigh, I decided I would go another two minutes west and then two minutes east, and then swim through the finish chute between the two docks. That ought to do it, I thought. As I swam the final three minutes, my teeth started to chatter. I wasn’t alarmed, because teeth chattering is one of the first symptoms I get when I start to get hypothermic and I’ve been there before. For some, it’s a huge warning sign, but for me, it’s just the very first thing. After all, my teeth chatter at my house when the thermostat is on 68 degrees, so I knew it’d be ok. And I was ok! I swam through to the shore and tagged Kristin in. There was more teeth chattering as I got out and more teeth chattering in the sauna. It took about a half hour to an hour to rewarm, but I was good to go after that.

Now, there’s some truth to the saying, “what goes up must come down” and that was certainly true of my mood with this weekend. I had just experienced over 24 hours of anticipation, excitement and cold-water euphoria. I had slept one hour that night and only a few hours the night before, due to excitement. I already knew that a period of equally low mood might follow and I braced myself for it. Sure enough, after Tracy, Cindy, Laura and Angie led our team home on the final 8:30-9:00 am shift, the post-event depression hit me suddenly and swiftly. It was a mixture of total energy drain and jittery nervousness. I suspected I was running on the last few fumes of adrenaline. I wanted to drink coffee to relieve the fatigue, but it made me feel anxious and somewhat panicky. And I was sad. So sad that it was all over. I suddenly became acutely aware of the 7 hours to pass before my flight home.

Some of the yetis were headed out for breakfast, and that was the best decision ever. We ate at the famous Buena Vista Cafe, which is known for their Irish Coffee. I wanted an Irish Coffee right then, but I strongly suspected it would be a bad idea. I opted instead for regular coffee, french toast, bacon and eggs. We did some talking and laughing and I’d say that the yeti camaraderie is the best medicine for post-event depression. Back at the South End Rowing Club, we even caught a beautiful rainbow, a fitting end to such a wonderful weekend.



Aging, Speed and Finding Meaning: Clearing the Mental Hurdles Part 2

I asked athletes what their biggest mental roadblocks are. This series of posts is in response to the answers I’ve received. Disclaimer: this is an athlete-to-athlete discussion of the mental side of swimming and in no way shape or form “mental health advice” ;).

One swimmer wrote, “For me its aging. I still feel I can train and perform as a 20 year old but at 44 I’m finding it harder and harder to do so. My mind just hasn’t caught up to the body yet. Makes it harder to get up early in the morning to see diminished returns from the investment.”

Oh boy, I can relate to this one and I bet a lot of other masters-age athletes can as well.

Going with the investment metaphor, if the “currency” is fast times, then you might predict diminishing returns on investment of time and energy with age. This is not always true for everyone, but may be especially true if you have been swimming competitively since childhood, which it sounds like you have. But what if the “currency” is something other than speed? If you invest time and energy into getting something out of swimming you value as much or more as fast times, then the returns on your investment may actually continue to roll in with your continued efforts, regardless of speed.

Twenty year-olds shoot for things like lifetime best times, cuts for big meets or finals at college championships. On the surface, these are all worthy goals, and exciting to work toward. But when I press athletes (even younger ones) further as to why, (“why do you want a national cut”), I get much more complex answers. For example, a teenager might say she likes swimming fast and of course, who doesn’t? But when asked what she especially enjoys, she might say she loves the excitement of a race day, showing up knowing she is ready, allowing herself to commit to the swim, showing up with the attitude that nothing will stop her, nothing will get in her way. The beauty of it is that she can show up with the same joy in her approach in her thirties, forties, fifties and beyond, even if her times get slower and slower.

An example of how we are all socialized from a young age to focus on and get excited about speed: an advertisement for our local age group club team

But what if you’re not going to be the next Olympic champion in the 200 free? People have reasons for wanting to achieve things that don’t go away as we age, that don’t go away as the nature of the achievements shift. These are principles that are at the core of who we are and what gives us meaning in life.

If you stay locked into a particular outcome-related achievement (fast time in 200 free, for example), it can be depressing when what is a “fast time” for you just gets slower each year. Like I said, I can relate. But look back to when you were at your peak. What made you feel the most alive during that time of your life? Was it the fast time itself, or was it the feeling of intensely striving toward something? Or perhaps the personal mastery of knowing you could get yourself to do something difficult?

Was it the early mornings when the pool is dark when you get in, the lights illuminating the water, the sunrise during the main set, and the extra large breakfast that followed? Was it the camaraderie of teammates, surrounded by people you are close to just by nature of sharing a deep commitment to an activity? Was it the comfort of the nap in the afternoon as your muscles twitched themselves to sleep and the triumphant soreness of diving in the water for the second practice of the day? Or maybe it was more about racing, getting on the blocks knowing you were ready to give your all, to exit the water entirely spent. Maybe it’s being fully present in the moment, when it feels like it really matters, that you’ll put it on the line, you won’t back off even when it hurts. How many of these things can you potentially still experience today?

Above: Mt. Hood aquatic center one starry night after a long day at work. The lights reflected off the water, ushering in a wave of nostalgia of the summer evening practices from my youth.

May I suggest a self-assessment of the values and meaning swimming has had for you in the past and what stands out to you as currently most important? When you look back at this time of your life, what aspects of swimming will you be most happy you made time and effort for? Close your eyes and think of the best moments you’ve had with swimming in the past few years–the times when you felt the richest sense of life. What was happening, who was there, what was happening in your mind and heart? What were you focused on? What approach were you taking to the situation? Find ways to maximize those types of moments going forward. See if you can approach the situation of swimming in a way that is the most meaningful to you.

If personal mastery is important to you, then it’s time to redefine how that’s measured. You might get diminished returns in terms of speed, but mastery is much more flexible. For instance, David Radcliff, an inspiring, Oregon swimmer in his 80s competed in the Olympics in 1956. He is fast, but not quite as fast as he was then. He is, however, someone I consider a true master. He has methodically learned to work with the changing conditions of his body and continues to do so. He knows how hard to push and when. He challenges himself. He encourages others. He also breaks records. One record after the next falls when that guy moves into a new age group. I don’t know his personal feelings or thoughts about what makes swimming meaningful to him, but I can assume he knows why he is doing this and what it is about it that makes him feel alive.

If it’s connection and camaraderie that contributes to your best memories, then it might be good to choose competitions, training sessions or other challenges that make the most room for being together with other swimmers in a positive way.

If it’s the training and physical challenge itself that you love, then maybe you don’t even have to compete. You might enjoy trying different types of sets designed to exercise different physiological systems (e.g., anaerobic, aerobic), different strokes, kicking, pulling, underwater swimming or challenging yourself to go further and further to see how far you really want to go.

I did a self-assessment like this a few years ago when I noticed my 200 backstroke got slower each time I swam it at a meet. It depressed me because I was hoping for a “masters best” each time, when all I got was a masters worst. Almost every time. It would’ve made sense if I’d been busy with other things, but I was really working on it at that time. Swimming started to stress me out. As an adult, I want swimming to be for fun and personal meaning, not a source of negative stress. My coach tried to help. He made suggestions on my technique and pointed out that making some changes to my stroke would help me go faster. “Why do I need to go faster?” I blurted out. In that moment, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t all about speed. Maybe I wanted to be doing this for other reasons. After a long day at work, I wanted to come to the pool, exert myself and forget about any sense of pressure and not-good-enoughness that might be haunting me.

When self-assessing, it occurred to me that my favorite, “most alive” memories from when I was a fast kid were actually at practice. I had a couple races that I remember fondly, but mostly just practices. I realize that’s not going to be the case for everyone, but it pointed me in a different direction. I can invest my time and energy in having the kinds of experiences I described above regardless of speed. I thought a little more about it and realized that I like adventuring and exploring my personal limits–also things that don’t depend on speed. I started training just to train and decided to set goals for distances I could swim instead of speeds, just for the spirit of adventure. Of course, we all know that path leads people straight into the arms of marathon swimming, which is where I am hanging out these days. The ironic thing is that I’ve actually improved in speed since I took that approach about a year or so ago. It almost seems like I accidentally got faster while pursuing my actual dreams. And I took my coach’s advice and worked on my technique. It’s not that I don’t care about speed–I do, but my swim investment “portfolio” is much more diverse now, with a heavy proportion of investment in adventure and distance and a smaller percentage in speed. I also see practice time as an investment in “me time”, time where I get to sift through everything in my head and let the dust settle without work or other life distractions. That time investment has yielded a mentally healthier me who is more able to listen patiently to other people and be more effective in my work life. The great thing about being an adult athlete is that we are forced (and able) to really think carefully about what each of us wants our sport to be about. As kids we are socialized into valuing speed as our currency. It’s all around us. It’s what people marvel about. It’s what gets us access to experiences in the form of bigger and bigger meets, sometimes in far off places. It carries an air of prestige and value that, as kids, we simply accepted. But as adults we get to decide if that is what we are hungry for or if we want something else–mastery of one’s physical and mental being, camaraderie, adventure, or challenge, the list could go on. And if you truly want speed, if it’s what makes you tick, then focus on that. Get high quality coaching on your technique, consider a stroke analysis, do harder intensity workouts focused on speed. It may be that you can get faster, maybe lifetime best, but possibly “masters best” or “over 40 best”. From the mastery perspective, see if you can learn about how your body responds to different types of training as a 44 year old rather than a 20 year old. For example, Dara Torres made the Olympic team at age 41 by doing different training than what worked for her at age 20.

You might find your times improving as you adjust your training to fit your body, and that’s true mastery. For example, I recently talked with Central Oregon Masters Coach Bob Bruce, who told me he saw an improvement in his times in his 70s after adjusting his workouts to focus on high rest high intensity work. He loves to race, loves focusing on improving speed but also notes that the camaraderie, seeing his friends at swim meets and encouraging others is as important to him as the times. The combination of these things has kept him in the sport for decades. Even if your times don’t improve, if you approach it from a place of meaning, you’ll still have the thrill of the pursuit of a dream to look back on and remember happily.

Here’s hoping this post is helpful and wishing you a hefty return on your investments!

Logistics & Willpower: Clearing the Mental Hurdles #1

I asked athletes what their biggest mental roadblocks are. This series of posts is in response to the answers I’ve received. Disclaimer: this is an athlete-to-athlete discussion of the mental side of swimming and in no way shape or form “mental health advice” ;).

Some of the responses I received described logistical issues that athletes found to be taxing to deal with, preventing them from slipping into the more pleasant, habitual groove of training consistently. When training is consistent, or in a “groove”, getting to practice and giving it a reasonable effort requires arguably less in the way of mental resources than when training schedules are erratic due to outside stressors and logistical challenges.

One swimmer wrote of his challenges, “Finding ANY kind of consistency in my life to train properly for anything. Just when I get into a groove, I get blindsided by some life event that pulls me out of the water indefinitely. I am constantly rebooting.”

Ugh. That sounds so frustrating! While there’s obviously nothing any of us can do about these uncontrollable life events, I’ve come to believe mental toughness is (in part) about adapting with resiliency to the unexpected. How quickly can you acknowledge that things have changed, get on board (and excited) for a new plan and as you’ve said, “reboot”? How can you continue to enjoy and get meaning from this sport, while at a time of your life when you are constantly rebooting?

Another swimmer wrote about having a full time job, a part time job and four kids, each with their own sports schedule that doesn’t even come out until the last minute. I don’t know how the parents of four kids manage the logistics of day to day survival, let alone their own personal projects and goals. My parents have four kids and I don’t know how they did it either, but they did a great job. Hats off to all you parents out there. You guys know far more about logistics management than I ever will and if I ever need help with this, I’m coming to you.

Other people I talked to and heard from referenced significant work and life stressors distracting them from swimming. Indeed, I can relate to this one. When my non-swimmer friends see me stressed, they suggest I go on a swim. But swimming when stressed is mentally hard for me. There have been times when I’ve struggled to make it to the other side of the pool because I am so absorbed in my thoughts on a life stressor. Once there, I remove my goggles and hang on the wall, looking around in order to ground myself. The only thing I can do at times like these is grab a kick board and just kick. Then, at least I can see the other people around me, the lifeguards, the pool itself. Swimming is solitary, even with others around. It leaves you with your own thoughts and when life throws some lemons at you, those thoughts are sour and can be painful to swim around in. Don’t worry folks, a post on dealing with isolation and swimming is on its way.

Finally, I’ll quote one swimmer, who summarized this all quite succinctly,

“…simply going for a swim is rarely straight forward. Mentally it’s like having to go round all the queue barriers at airport check in rather than just being able to walk up to the desk unhindered. If I could just rock up and swim I’d have more mental energy for my training and competition.”

As I write this, I sit in the Seattle Airport on a layover to Redmond from Pittsburgh, where I visited family over Christmas. I have a big workout planned tomorrow–a big one to make up for only swimming twice this week. A big one I might have to exert a lot of will-power to wake up for since I just found my flight is delayed an hour and I won’t be getting in until midnight. What sort of mindset will I be in when I swim tomorrow?

The notion of having more (or less) mental energy caught my attention in this swimmer’s response. There is something in psychological science called the will-power depletion theory. The theory is that will-power is a limited resource that can get depleted by tasks that use it. I refer to it as a theory because it is currently being debated by researchers, but I’ll tell you what I know and why it might be relevant to those encountering logistical issues and feeling their mental energy depleted as a result.

Chartiers Valley High School pool in Pittsburgh. Had a great workout despite spending vast quantities of will-power hauling myself out of bed at 4:30 am local/1:30 am pacific time.

Will-Power “Depletion”

Basically, over the past few decades, researchers have found that people will perform more poorly on tasks requiring will-power when they have recently been required to complete will-power demanding tasks. Applied to our situations, this theory would suggest that one would have less will-power to push ones self hard at practice if one recently used up their will-power suppressing emotion at work, with family, or overcoming a lot of hassle to get to practice instead of giving into the urge to skip it.

A few things seem to lessen this depletion effect in experiments, including the taste (but not necessarily consumption) of glucose, watching funny videos (to induce a positive mood state) and being intrinsically motivated to perform the task (in this case swimming). Some researchers speculate that rewarding experiences like laughter, the taste of sugar and intrinsic motivation may activate brain systems involved with will-power and self-regulation. In other words, the will-power is still there and isn’t depleted, but it needs to be activated by positive feelings or dopamine-inducing experiences. Researchers also found that the depletion effect depended on the extent to which participants believed that will-power could be depleted. When people thought it was a limited resource that could be used up, they were more likely to exhibit the depletion effect during the experiment than those who thought will-power could not be depleted. For those curious about this line of research, read the American Psychology Association’s summary here.

What does this mean for mentally coping with logistical challenges? I’m guessing the more positive or intrinsically rewarding you are able to make your experience with practice and competition, the more mental resources you will have, even if you had to go through a lot of hassle to get there. Another way to look at it is that if you can find ways and reasons to give yourself a lot of excitement and positive mental energy about practice, then you will be less affected by having to clear all those hurdles beforehand.

Activating Reward Pathways

To activate the reward pathways in your brain, try these ideas:

1. Before practice, listen to a favorite song that makes you feel positive and energized. Better yet, get one of those underwater MP3 gizmos and listen to it while swimming.

2. Remind yourself why you are swimming. Try to find reasons that are related to what positive impact this specific practice (or competition) will have on you and why you love it, rather than reasons related to your long term goals.

3. If you had a rough day (or even if you didn’t), do what I call “the mental warm-up”. It goes: 100 validate/100 gratitude/100 focus.

“100 validate” means you swim 100 meters while validating your own feelings by saying thing to yourself like, “yeah, that thing that happened today really sucked and of course you are still feeling sad/angry/worried”. Keep it simple–try not to go down the rabbit hole of the whole story of what happened and why it upsets you. Just acknowledge your feeling about whatever it is and be nice to yourself about it. After the 100, set it aside and move on to the next part.

The “100 gratitude” is think of at least three things you appreciate about being able to be there at practice. It could be seeing friends. It could be time for yourself away from other responsibilities. It could be just the feel of the water on your skin.

Then “100 focus” means you spend a little time thinking about some things you’d really enjoy getting out of the workout. This is no time for thinking what you “should be able” to do. Instead think about what sort of effort or approach you’d feel really happy about. It can be saying good job to other swimmers, or refusing to back off when it’s hard, or remembering to work on turns and streamlines. Try to stay away from a focus that makes you feel anxious, stressed or otherwise negative as that will likely increase the effects of will-power “depletion”.

I took this picture right before the 100x100s at Mt. Hood pool a few years ago, at a time in my life when I was just really thankful to be swimming again. That was one of the more enjoyable times doing that iconic holiday season set.

For Frequent Blindsides

For those who get blindsided frequently with unanticipated responsibilities and have to change practice or competition plans, it may help to reset expectations using an ABC hierarchical planning system. To do this, first figure out which days are more and less likely to get cancelled. Call practices that are unlikely to get canceled your “A” days and put the most important sets or distances on those days. For me, Saturday is unlikely to have any unexpected issues come up, so I plan a long, hard day then. “B” days are practices you plan to do and have a good chance of doing but sometimes get cancelled due to work or other responsibilities coming up. Do what you can to make it to B practices, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss some. Don’t make the “all-or-nothing” thinking mistake, where you think all is ruined because you missed some B days. See if you can make up some of the activities or yardage you missed by going a little longer on a different B day or doing a “C” day. Finally, a “C” practice is kind of a bonus or make-up day, like if you make it great, but if you miss it, it’s not really a big deal. Save extra yardage, or things you consider non-essential to your goals and enjoyment for these days. If you can get into a groove of not missing any “A” workouts, then you might be able to feel a sense of consistency even if you are missing some “Bs” and “Cs”. Those of us who grew up going to practice every single day and never missing may be more prone to all-or-nothing thinking about practice attendance, but it may not be realistic as an adult with multiple priorities and responsibilities, so we need to do what we can and be proud of that.

For Major Life Stressors

Finally, if you’re at a place in life where you are getting blindsided by really big life stressors like major illness, surgeries, grief, etc. then consider forgetting about goal setting for a moment and use swimming as therapy. Get to the pool when you can but use the whole workout to provide you with whatever you need that day. If you need to swim hard, swim hard. If you need to kick with fins or do dolphin dives or hand stands, do that. If you need to miss a day, just miss it. Swimming will be there for you when your world is falling apart and swimming will still be there tomorrow if you are busy putting your world back together again.

In summary, try to control what you can and be flexible with how you respond to logistical challenges so that when you swim, you swim from a place of enjoyment and appreciation rather than frustration and anxiety.

Beginner’s Mind in Cold Water

Years ago a friend recommended a book, one called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, by Shunryu Suzuki. The basic idea of the book is that there is something really special about the mental state of being a beginner. The author is quoted as having said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

This is what comes to mind as I have been exploring the path of cold water swimming. I have very little idea what to expect from myself, leaving me in a state of wondering and curiosity, with many possibilities ahead. As a beginner, doing it all for the first time, I’m in a unique phase of experience. Every swim is a new discovery, as the temperature of my local lake drops lower and lower. What will happen if I go at this temperature, I wonder at each start. What will happen if I stay in just a little longer, I think at the finish. What sort of new sensations will I experience under these new conditions? Will I experience something I haven’t before? I know from the past that you only get this phase of beginner-ing once per hobby and I am thoroughly savoring it this time around.

This particular hobby seems especially fertile for the emergence of a “beginners mind”, as part of the skill set seems to be taking an almost meditative-like interest in your body’s sensations and signals, learning to observe them carefully but also with a certain degree of equanimity, which is not the body’s natural fight or flight reaction to the danger of cold. The scenery is beautiful and unique. You are exposed to the elements, transporting your psyche back into its primal nature. The ego is kind of irrelevant, possibly mostly because I’m a beginner, but the nature of the sport makes it even more so. There is deliciously nothing to prove, only survival, only facing fear, only getting to know yourself a little better.

Today I swam a personal best, something I thought I’d never be able to say about swimming again, since all my fastest times were under the age of eighteen. Today my time was forty-four minutes at fifty-one degrees (water), thirty-eight degrees (air). Now the goal of the sport is longer, not faster. Here I am at the start of the swim today. (All photo credits in this post go to Dan).

I swam what I think of as, “the course” at Lake Billy Chinook, a reservoir at the confluence of three rivers here in Central Oregon. I swim on the Crooked River arm this time of year, because it is the closest and, I suspect, the warmest. The river has carved away the canyon to create colossal cliffs that loom in the background, a foreboding backdrop for a swim. The course is around some buoys labeled, “swim area, no boats”, which are strung together with an actual lane line. Today, I swam between the lane line and a floating dock, where Dan paced along with me, checking in with me every five minutes or so.

Here I am backstroking the first few minutes of today’s swim.

The first half lap is always hard. I start off waist deep for a couple minutes, then comes backstroke for a few minutes. I don’t really mind that at all–it’s just once it comes time for me to put my face in. That is a bit brutal for a few strokes, and then maybe a few more. Then suddenly, I feel fine, my skin has reached the temperature of the lake and I feel warm in my core. Today, I felt great. The air temperature was 38F, but it was sunny and beautiful. Dan was there, walking along the floating dock. I swam the first lap and felt good and acclimated. By the start of the second lap, I was feeling euphoric. I remember thinking how surreal the whole thing is, swimming out here in November, when nighttime temperatures have been in the teens for the past week. Also odd to feel simultaneously warm and frozen at the same time. My stroke felt strong, smooth and powerful. I swam along, a feeling of genuine pride glowing in my core and making me feel warm and happy. “I love being a beginner,” I remember thinking, cheerfully.

I focused on keeping my mouth closed underwater to keep the cold out, but I haven’t mastered this habit yet. Periodically I’d notice a mild stinging sensation on the tip of my tongue. I tricked myself into thinking it was some nasty chemical in the water, burning my tongue, and then had to un-trick myself into thinking it was just the cold. The water was clear and I could see to the bottom. I thought about what it would be like if this were the ocean and sharks were a possibility. I am way jumpier in colder water.

On lap three, the same mild stinging feeling crept into the palm of my left hand, like pressing your palm onto the bristles of a hair brush. During my checks with Dan, I was still showing great dexterity, however, so I knew I was ok. At the midway point check-in of lap three, for some reason I drank a huge gulp of water. Like, HUGE. I have no idea why. I was stopped, vertically treading water, saying something to him. The water was glassy, there were no boats and the next thing I knew I had swallowed, then sucked in, an absurd amount of lake water. I coughed a bunch then reassured Dan I was ok. It did freak me out a little and got the adrenaline up. It was just so random.

Going into lap four, I was just beginning to feel the urge to shiver, but not shivering. Dan later told me my stroke count slowed down at this point. The palm of my left hand burned, my feet were cold but not totally numb. Dexterity was still great, no speech slurring. I signaled to Dan that this would be my last lap, and decided to skip the first half of it and just stay next to the floating dock. When I reached the midway point, I gave Dan a thumbs up and headed back. I remember it getting a lot harder on the second half of the way back (last quarter of lap four). The cold feeling had spread into my upper arms and my muscles felt sluggish. I wasn’t shivering but I also felt like being done. I wasn’t looking forward to the “after-drop” and the post swim shivering. I briefly had the thought that I could put off the shivering if I just swam a little longer, but knew that didn’t make any kind of sense.

I got out and felt great at first. Not much shivering, and Dan wrapped a towel around me. I had just finished getting my warm clothes on when the shivers really set in. But they weren’t any worse than usual, adding to my confidence that I’ll be ok doing this, at least for a little longer into the winter. I’ll do it again next week, have another adventure and learn something new.

Waldo With Friends

Time for confessions of a procrastinator: this swim took place weeks ago! It’s still on my mind just because of how much fun it was and I have been meaning to write about it, but… work happened. But…other adventures happened. But… life happened? Anyhow consider it a testament to how much I enjoyed this swim that I think I need to make an entry about it well after my self-imposed deadline. Also, the photos/video Todd and Shannon took came out really well and I like looking at them :).

So, what’s better than a swim in the blue waters of Waldo Lake?

A swim with friends in the waters of Waldo Lake! Add an underwater go-pro video camera and you’ve got a regular party. At least that’s what I learned several weekends ago, when I met up with Shannon and Todd from Southern Oregon for a dip in my favorite Oregon swimming spot.

I arrived early and took the lake temperature at a variety of locations. My thermometer read 55.5 F at the dock of the shallow inlet for the day of use area, 57 at the shore closer to the mouth of the inlet and 57 at the shore of the point just north of Shadow Bay campground. The deeper the water, the warmer at this time of year, so we are just gonna say the temp was 55-58 and leave it at that. Since my confidence is still a little low for these temperatures, the others kindly accommodated my request to swim out 30 minutes and the back to the dock, so we would be close to shore if necessary. The thirty minutes was plenty to get is away from the shallow water and into the blue for some good photos and videos.

Shannon had an especially good reason to shoot video–she is launching an adventure swimming and coaching company in Southern Oregon! You can check it out at: http://www.intrepidwater.com/.


Here she is (above) during the swim. If you need some coaching, stroke technique lessons or want to plan an adventure in open water, she’s the one to talk to–very friendly and encouraging as well.

So we stroked steadily along and got into the deeper water. Then it was playtime. Shannon and Todd took turns filming while we swam past the camera. Waldo is a great place for this kind of thing because the water is so clear. As I swam along, I enjoyed being able to see the others, visible under water even from a long way off. Celeste, Todd’s partner was in the kayak. I chuckled when I saw that she had rigged up an umbrella over her in the kayak to keep off the rain that had started to fall. At the thirty minute mark, we headed back. And maybe it was a good thing too–the rain had become a cloud over the lake and that cloud was blocking our view. We were all very glad Celeste was there, as you almost could not see the point where the water flows into the day use inlet where we had started. It was a reminder that just because you aren’t swimming alone doesn’t mean you won’t get lost and doesn’t mean you are safe. Always turn around and look back where you are coming from when you are headed out, so that things will look familiar when you are heading back from the other direction.

As we swam back, I watched Shannon and Todd film each other and me with the go-pro. It was fun and lighthearted. I almost forgot that the water was cold because I was giggling a lot. I tried to pretend we were in the tropics–playing around in the warm ocean. Here I am during the “photo shoot” part of the swim:


When we got to the inlet, it was colder than out in “the blue”. We treaded water while playing around more and that was when I started to shiver a bit. When my teeth started chattering, I decided it was time to get out. As I swam through the shallow water closest to the dock, the several-degree-colder water hit me hard. I was already cold and that water felt so much colder! It definitely got me sprinting, kicking hard to reach the dock sooner.

Celeste helped me get out and I got into my dry clothes. Shannon and Todd stayed in awhile longer and then joined us. We sipped hot drinks and just about laughed our butts off while sharing swimming stories and future fantasies. Cold water euphoria is even more fun with friends around. So glad we got to do this one!!